With the end of the long lazy days of summer comes la rentrée—the return to work and school—which means getting back into a normal rhythm of life. At times like this we look to comfort food, and the classic poulet à l’ail (roasted garlic chicken) is exactly one of those dishes.
Poulet à l’ail is classic French home cooking, perfect for sharing with the family, a fact that is especially important when you consider that there are a whopping 30 plump cloves of garlic used to give the chicken all its flavor! Stuffed with unpeeled garlic cloves and generous knobs of butter, then surrounded by handfuls of even more garlic, the chicken is cooked slowly over very low heat for a couple of hours, until it is extremely moist and almost falling off the bone.
To get this most succulent roasted meat, you need to use a cocotte, a heavy cast-iron pot (also known as a French or Dutch oven), which can be found in almost every French kitchen. They can be used on top of the stove or in the oven and are specially designed for self-basting and slow cooking, which allows the meat to become extremely moist and tender. I use an Alsatian-made Staub cocotte, but Le Creuset French ovens, made in northern France, are also a big favorite among home cooks and professional chefs alike.
I like to go to the market early on a Sunday morning, where I get a free-range fat chicken and several heads of garlic, then start cooking it as soon as I get home, filling the house with the comforting smells of garlic and butter. Poulet à l’ail is home cooking at its best and makes an ideal Sunday lunch, served with crispy roasted potatoes and green beans sautéed in the juices of the chicken. But the best part of the entire meal is the roasted ail en chemise (unpeeled garlic cloves, literally translated as “garlic in a shirt”). Serve the cloves whole, scattered around the roasted chicken, and squeeze the garlic out of the skin onto your plate—it will be surprisingly creamy and spreadable, with a nutty, creamy, almost caramelized flavor. After tasting them smeared onto a succulent morsel of chicken or a piece of baguette, no one will be able to resist reaching for a few extra cloves!
1 large free-range chicken (about 2¼ kilograms or 4 pounds)
salt and pepper to taste
100 grams butter (about 7 tablespoons)
3 heads of garlic, cloves separated but not peeled (about 30 cloves)
1. On the stove or in the oven, gradually preheat a large, heavy cast-iron pot (cocotte) at low temperature (I cook at 3 out of 10 on our stove, but follow the manufacturer’s instructions according to your stovetop or oven—each cocotte may have different heating requirements).
2. Remove any internal organ meats (gizzards, liver, etc.) from the cavity of the chicken and place them in the fridge, then season the cavity with salt and pepper.
3. Cut the chunk of butter into thirds. Starting at the neck, loosen the skin of the chicken away from the meat and gently slide two of the parts of butter under the skin to rest on top of the breasts. Massage half of the last third of butter all over the chicken. Season the outside with salt and pepper, then place five or six cloves of garlic inside the chicken (as many as will fit). Truss the chicken (see video link below) with kitchen string.
4. Melt the last part of the butter in the cocotte and place the chicken inside, breast part up, and let sear for 1 minute. Add 1 cup of water, then scatter the rest of the cloves around the chicken, seasoning the garlic if desired. Place the lid on the cocotte and let cook for 2 hours. Every 45 minutes or so, remove the lid and baste the chicken with the juices at the bottom of the cocotte (although basting is not strictly necessary with a cocotte, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the chicken to ensure it’s not cooking too quickly or to add more water if necessary). Exact cooking time will vary according to the stove, the type of cocotte and the size of the chicken, but you know it is cooked when the juices run clear after poking with a skewer.
5. Remove from the cocotte and let sit for 15 minutes before carving. Serve with roasted potatoes and fresh green beans sautéed with some of the chicken juices, or a salad.
Many people prefer the skin of a roasted chicken to be crispy, so before it is fully cooked, remove the lid of the cocotte and place the chicken in a hot oven (220°C/425°F) for 20 minutes, until the skin crisps up a little, then remove from the oven and let sit for another 15 minutes until carving.
If any of your guests enjoy eating the internal organ meats, add them to the cocotte during the last half hour of cooking, as they will cook a lot quicker than the whole chicken.
Le Creuset French ovens
How to truss a chicken
Editor’s note: If you are a foodie heading to Paris, why not download one of our three gourmet walking trips or our package of foodie walks for the iPhone?